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Algerian anti-election protesters vote with their feet

Algerians are due to elect a new president next month but a huge protest movement bitterly rejects the vote, fearing it will cement in power politicians close to the disgraced old guard.

Candidates have been loudly heckled during rare and low-key campaign events and their posters graffitied.

For nine months protesters have marched weekly to demand that the December 12 election not entrench a political elite linked to former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who quit in April when confronted by a wave of people power.

Now the public rejection of the looming election threatens to worsen already deep divisions in the north African country.

The protesters fear that a regime in power since 1962 in the former French colony is seeking to reconstitute itself in the vote, despite 40 weeks of persistent demonstrations led by the so-called “Hirak” movement.

The ailing Bouteflika was forced to resign after 20 years in power after mass demonstrations erupted in February against his bid for a fifth term.

But the five candidates seeking to replace him all either supported the former leader or participated in his government, and all have been the target of the protesters’ hostility.

Former prime ministers Ali Benflis, 75, and Abdelmadjid Tebboune, 73, are considered the frontrunners.

Also standing is Azzedine Mihoubi, head of the Democratic National Rally party, the main ally of Bouteflika’s party.

Bringing up the rear are Islamist former tourism minister Abdelkader Bengrina, whose party backed Bouteflika, and Abdelaziz Belaid, a member of a youth organisation that also supported him.

Since campaigning began on November 17, the candidates have avoided making appearances in the large cities of the coastal north, and often announce public meetings at the last minute.

This has not stopped them from being greeted by jeering demonstrators who sometimes also manage to disrupt campaign meetings, despite a hefty security presence.

Protesters see the candidates as accomplices to the military high command, which since Bouteflika’s resignation has assumed de facto power.

Powerful army chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah has emerged as Algeria’s main post-Bouteflika kingmaker.

Candidates speaking at the sparsely attended rallies have struggled to demonstrate their understanding of Hirak’s demands.

Above all, they are facing an uphill battle to convince people to vote on December 12 in a country where abstention is viewed as the only way to challenge an entrenched system.

Official figures showed 37 percent of the electorate voted in 2017 legislative polls and 50 percent in the 2014 presidential election.

But observers say that even those turnout numbers were probably inflated.

Analyst Louisa Dris-Ait Hamadouche told AFP previous elections have been tainted by fraud and “held amid general indifference with a known voter base”, mostly supporters of Bouteflika’s long-ruling National Liberation Front and its allies.

“Now indifference has given way to active protest,” the political science professor at the University of Algiers said.

An election planned for July 4 was postponed over a lack of viable candidates, plunging the country into a constitutional crisis as interim president Abdelkader Bensalah’s mandate expired that month.

Military-backed authorities are now determined to end the crisis as quickly as possible.

General Gaid Salah insists that December’s vote enjoys popular backing, citing “spontaneous” small marches of support but ignoring the hostile slogans chanted weekly at huge Hirak rallies.

The protesters remain adamant. Across the country, election posters are ripped down or painted over with pictures of full rubbish bags or imprisoned Hirak figures.

People “are doing everything they can to stop this election… They are trying to force those in power to retreat or for the candidates to withdraw,” said Said Salhi, vice president of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, a leading group in the Hirak movement.

But Algerian academic Mohamed Hennad predicted that the country’s powerbrokers would “organise their election, come what may, even if it means a low turnout”.

As polling day edges closer, positions are hardening with fears that both sides could adopt more radical measures.

General Gaid Salah has issued multiple warnings to opponents of the election, implicitly likening them to traitors.

Marches that support the general are tolerated by police, but when they prompt counter-demonstrations these are often suppressed.

There is a risk of growing violence, with authorities seeking to “turn part of the population against another”, Hennad said.

Hirak, meanwhile, is trying to keep its ranks marching peacefully.

The polarisation risks deepening divisions in Algeria, said Dris-Ait Hamadouche.

This could happen when the “vertical fracture between rulers and the populace” is joined by “horizontal fractures within society”.

No-one has an interest in inciting violence, she said, “because the potential short-term dividends would produce an ungovernable situation after the election”.

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